WASHINGTON — A son-in-law of Osama bin Laden who once served as his spokesman will appear in a New York courtroom Friday to face terrorism charges that could bring life imprisonment.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who is married to one of bin Laden’s daughters, Fatima, was arrested weeks ago in Turkey. He will be charged with conspiracy to kill Americans, according to an indictment released Thursday. One law enforcement official said that Abu Ghaith, 47, was the most senior Al Qaeda figure to face criminal trial in New York since America’s war against the terrorist network began.
Justice Department officials described him as a propagandist who they believe has not had an operational role in Al Qaeda for years and did not participate in the attacks Sept. 11, 2001, or any plots against the United States.
Details about his arrest were sketchy Thursday, but officials said he was originally detained last month while staying in a hotel in Ankara, Turkey, after crossing the border from Iran, where he had been living for about a decade.
According to one person in Washington briefed on the matter, Turkish officials rebuffed demands by the Obama administration to directly hand him over to the United States, choosing rather to deport him to Kuwait. On a stopover in Amman, Jordan, US officials took him into custody and flew him to New York.
Jordan’s spy service, the General Intelligence Directorate, is one of the Central Intelligence Agency’s closest partners in the Middle East.
Abu Ghaith was a Muslim preacher and teacher in Kuwait who spoke out against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s. In 2000, he went to Afghanistan, where he met bin Laden and eventually married one of his daughters.
He attracted wide attention in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks by making statements defending the attacks, some of them carried on Al-Jazeera. According to an indictment unsealed Thursday, Abu Ghaith appeared with bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, who was then his deputy, and warned the United States and its allies that a ‘‘great army is gathering against you’’ and called upon ‘‘the nation of Islam’’ to fight ‘‘Jews, the Christians, and the Americans.’’
He also urged people at a guest house in Kandahar, Afghanistan, to swear allegiance to bin Laden and on the night of the World Trade Center attack, bin Laden summoned him and asked for his help and he agreed to provide it, according to the indictment.
The arrest of Abu Ghaith was the rare occasion in which an Al Qaeda operative was detained overseas rather than slain. The Obama administration has expanded the use of targeted killing operations in Pakistan and Yemen, saying they are justified when there is no chance of capture.
CIA and White House officials declined to make comments.
George Venizelos, the assistant director in charge of the New York FBI office, compared Abu Ghaith’s position in Al Qaeda to the consigliere in a crime family, or propaganda minister in a totalitarian regime. He said he used his role to persuade others to join ‘‘Al Qaeda’s murderous cause.’’
‘‘He had serious religious credibility inside of Al Qaeda,’’ said Seth Jones, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp. Jones said it was unlikely that Abu Ghaith would have intelligence about any active Al Qaeda plots, but said that he could be a useful source of information about the movement of the group’s operatives through Iran.
But the plan to put Abu Ghaith on trial in New York City drew immediate criticism.
Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House Select Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that Al Qaeda leaders captured on the battlefield should not be brought to the United States for trial. ‘‘We should treat enemy combatants like the enemy — the US court system is not the appropriate venue. The president needs to send any captured Al Qaeda members to Guantanamo,’’ he said.